Gophers lock down WCHA regular-season championship
With 7-1 victory over St. Thomas, top-ranked Minnesota wins first regular-season crown since 2018-19
After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2006-07 season, the Gophers vowed to put Minnesota women’s hockey back where they feel it belongs: atop the rankings, atop their conference and, ultimately, atop all of women’s hockey.
So far, so good.
Ranked No. 1 since Feb. 1, the Gophers on Saturday hoisted the Julianne Bye Cup as the WCHA’s regular-season champion after a 7-1 victory over St. Thomas at Ridder Arena.
Ella Huber and Savannah Norcross each scored twice, and Taylor Heise added her team-leading 26th goal as the Gophers clinched their first regular-season conference title since the 2018-19 season, and 11th overall, to fulfill a preseason goal.
“It feels like such a long time since we’ve been in the spot we wanted to be in, but I think that drives you every day,” Heise said. “I get up for that. I haven’t been to a Frozen Four since my freshman year, and that feels like forever ago.”
The other goals are to win the WCHA postseason tournament – that begins Friday against St. Thomas (5-25-1) at Ridder – and win a national championship. Those goals never change for Minnesota, which has won six NCAA national titles and seven overall.
“It’s one of three, and obviously that’s 33 percent,” Heise said of the team’s goals. “We want to get to 100 percent.”
The Gophers were primed to make a postseason run in 2020, bringing a 27-6-3 record into a first-round NCAA game against Ohio State when the NCAA canceled the tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last season, the Gophers finished an abridged season 9-7-1 and were snubbed by the selection committee.
One of the teams that made the bracket was Minnesota Duluth, against whom the Gophers were 2-0. At the time, head coach Brad Frost called it “one last kick in the teeth,” but he and the team acknowledged they didn’t do enough to make it.
There is no doubt it was motivating.
“At the start of the year, you could tell that the team was ready for a reset,” said Huber, a freshman who notched her first multi-goal game on Saturday. “Everybody was coming in with a blank slate. Everybody was working their hardest. Everybody was doing everything they can because they didn’t want to be in the same position.”
That meant taking the decision out of any selection committee’s hands, something likely already accomplished.
Minnesota (26-7-1 overall) brings a seven-game win streak into the postseason and is 8-4-1 against Top 10 opponents. They’re ranked No. 1 in both weekly polls, as well as the PairWise and RPI standings used to help determine what this season will be an 11-team NCAA tournament bracket.
Peyton Hemp, Savannah Norcross and Emily Oden also scored goals, and goaltender Lauren Bench made 11 saves for the Gophers.
After Hemp gave Minnesota a 1-0 lead just 1:47 into the contest, Luci Bianchi tied the game on a two-on-one with teammate Allie Monrean at 8:23. But Heise scored off a juicy rebound at 10:48, and Huber scored unassisted on a rush to make it 3-1 with just over five minutes left in the period.
The Gophers played nearly the entire second period in the Tommies’ zone, outshooting St. Thomas 17-1. But goaltender Alexa Dobchuk kept the Tommies in it by stopping a flurry of Grade A chances, including point-blank shots from Heise, Huber and Catie Skaja.
Dobchuk finished with 63 saves, giving her 840 this season. Prior to Saturday’s game, her 777 saves ranked fifth in the nation. Huber finally beat the Tommies senior with a backhander top shelf after skating through the crease at 13:48 to give the Gophers a 4-1 lead they took into the third period.
Norcross scored twice, including a power-play goal, and Oden once to salt away the Gophers’ conference title. Now, Heise said, “It’s a sprint.”
“This is a start,” she said, “and we’re not going to stop until we make it all the way.”